Do I Still Have a Life? Voices From the Aftermath of War in Rwanda and Burundi

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It is a daunting challenge to any investigator, regardless of academic training or experience with war, to assess the various impacts of genocidal behavior. Such a challenge is only intensified in Rwanda and Burundi because both the perpetrators and the survivors now coexist. Under the sponsorship of the Mennonite Central Committee, John and Reinhild Janzen chose to undertake this challenge. In late 1994 and early 1995, they conducted seventy-five unstructured interviews in Rwanda and Burundi, and in four refugee camps near Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their mission was "to listen, to provide analysis and philosophical reflections." (p.11)

Narratives and stories were collected from administrators, diplomats, clergy, farmers, and former soldiers and teachers. The book also offers contextual insights based on the Janzens' knowledge of the region. They "sought to situate individual accounts within settings that appeared to offer microcosmic case studies of the genocidal crisis and war." (p.6) The challenge of lacing together these narratives is reflected in the book's organization. The first introductory essay is a vital component of the volume because it carries the reader beyond the generalities presented in numerous Western-based books and reports published since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The essays that follow are often reflections on the stories told by the people themselves about the role of organized religions, the political milieu, ethnicity, and individual psychologies in the violence of 1994-95. Although some essays present redundant information and reflect disparate approaches, the book nevertheless is given coherence by the author's compassion for the survivors of personal horrors. In addition, the authors do not overlook discussion of the sociopolitical and economic dynamics that first contributed to the horrific violence.

Interestingly, the authors are very much aware of the role they played in the lives of the people they interviewed and in the actual interpretation of these experiences, personal and otherwise. The Janzens were asked to carry personal letters from one place to another. Acting as couriers elicited introspection from the authors about a world where manipulation led to genocide, and virtually everyone is vulnerable to the nuances of "contradictory realities."

The Janzens struggled simply to understand -- let alone accept -- the magnitude of human violence. Their struggle is reflected in the questions posed near the end of many chapters. Those questions based on the accounts of the genocide's survivors and witnesses are provocative and, I would assert, healthy for those interested in the underpinnings of genocidal behavior. The authors reveal their frustration with the nature of the inter, views: "The extreme divergence of members of one and the same community under pressure of ideological mass hysteria challenges us to find an analysis that illuminates what drove people on the two sides." (p.80)

This book's most compelling message is perhaps reflected in the drawings made by children (between the ages 6 of 15) of life before, during, and after the 1994 genocide. The authors selected a sample of 94 original pencil and crayon drawings for reproduction (unfortunately, not in color). Some of these drawings will compete with the gut-wrenching impact of many photographs taken during and subsequent to the massacres in Rwanda and Burundi. The authors acknowledge that the children's drawings were not done without bias, i.e., adult supervision and peer pressure. Yet these drawings reflect individual variation in the interpretation of the recent past. With respect to memory and the incentive for selective remembering, the Janzens note that the children "block out what most of the adults block out." (p. 150)

This well-illustrated book is not one that documents, through formal methods, the Rwanda-Burundi violence of 1994-95. Nor is it a formal anthropological or sociological analysis of the roots of the lethal and widespread violence. It does, however, weave historical, sociological, anthropological, and psychological approaches together for a compelling assessment of particular individuals and their traumatic experiences. The text forces the reader to acknowledge the complexity of the motives influencing behavior in a social environment where manipulation was so blatantly transparent.

With the increasing interest in the impact of violent social conflict on children, especially in those areas where population density exceeds the natural environment's ability to recover from ecological degradation, the regulation of aggression will demand attention from affluent regions of the world, even among governments not known for their humanitarianism. The work of Western NGOs, with their unparalleled humanitarian and information-gathering capabilities, will not by itself affect the potential for future genocidal massacres. NGOs do provide, however, a vehicle of compassion for those whose memories and accounts of extreme brutality will haunt a world far beyond the boundaries of Rwanda and Burundi. The cover of this book, reproduced from the sketches of a 13 year-old Rwandan "displaced person" in Bukavu (1994), may be as much a predictor of the future of east-central Africa as it is an expression of the memories of a man now nearly 20 years old.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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